St. Petersburg beach shuttle SunRunner makes its debut next Friday

The first 500 riders will get “gold cards” with discounts to local shops and bars.
A SunRunner bus is parked at the 1st Avenue N and 5th Street N station on Wednesday.
A SunRunner bus is parked at the 1st Avenue N and 5th Street N station on Wednesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 14, 2022|Updated Oct. 14, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — The SunRunner, the long awaited new bus system that shuttles passengers to and from St. Pete Beach and downtown St. Petersburg, debuts next Friday.

Transit officials want you to know it’s OK to come aboard with a wet swimsuit full of sand. Bring your beach gear, too. Even your bike, which can be stored vertically inside the bus.

The SunRunner is the first bus rapid transit system in Tampa Bay. It has dedicated lanes, which are paved red along 1st Avenue N and 1st Avenue S, and which get priority at the light. Transmitters atop the bus signal to oncoming lights to give an edge to the SunRunner at green lights.

The 10.3-mile loop with 30 stations along 1st Ave N and 1st Ave S goes live at 6 a.m. on Oct. 21. The first 500 riders will get “gold cards” with discounts to local shops and bars.

Seven hybrid electric buses in a fleet of nine, leaving two for contingency, will be on the road. All of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s 400 drivers will learn how to drive the SunRunner.

But it took some unlearning, said AJ Ortiz, who has trained 85% of bus drivers on how to drive the bus. Training started in the classroom in January, and then moved to a hands-on experience with a demo platform, where drivers learn to undo the habit of not getting too close to the curb.

Ortiz taught that because the SunRunner is the only bus system that has raised platforms. Drivers must pull up next to the curb against yellow rubber material found at ice rinks to shorten the gap between platform and bus to avoid passengers tripping. In other buses, drivers usually avoid the curb because that’s where passengers stand.

“It was a challenge of breaking really good habits,” Ortiz said. “It’s designed to (a) T so drivers can practice in a controlled environment.”

The SunRunner has 31 seats, but can fit 46 passengers with standing room. There’s three bike racks aboard that can vertically store bikes with up to 3-inch thick tires, like electric bikes, and can fit two wheelchairs. There’s free WiFi and USB ports are offered in the back of the bus to charge up phones and devices.

The SunRunner comes every 15 minutes from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and every 30 minutes from 8 p.m. until midnight. Rides are free to all for the first six months of service. After that, it costs the same as any other bus ride: $2.25 for a one-way fare and capped at $5 for rides all day.

The bus is cashless for quicker boarding. Riders must either download the Flamingo Fares app and link their credit card or load cash onto a Flamingo Fares card at Grand Central Station or Williams Park. Riders then tap either their phone or their card to the reader to pay.

Passengers can board at the front of the bus or at the back, as pay readers are stationed at both entrances. There are security cameras trained on the reader and at platforms.

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Bus driver Travis Shaw can’t wait to drive the SunRunner. Bus drivers with more priority have a better chance getting their preferred routes.

“This is the future,” Shaw said. “This is the betterment of the county.”

Craig Hutcheson, director of sales at Cycle Brewing, took a sneak peak of the SunRunner on Wednesday.

“It’s just another way to get people downtown and we’re grateful for that,” he said. “With parking being the way it is, (it’s) an easy option to hop on and off.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of seats and capacity on the SunRunner.